Wildlife zones will be eliminated from the state's highways after a Colorado Department of Transportation study showed the signage and penalties did not consistently reduce wildlife crashes.
That doesn't mean slowing down isn't safer on Colorado's highways at night.
"We cannot, per state statute, leave regulatory speed limit signs that are not supported by data and/or an official speed study," said Mike McVaugh, Region 5 traffic and safety engineer. "We do, however, completely support the need for motorists to slow down in wildlife areas at night, particularly during the fall and spring period. Slowing down and scanning the roadsides ahead will give drivers that extra time they need to react and, hopefully, avoid a collision."
House Bill 10-1238, created at the order of the Colorado General Assembly, mandated reduced speed limits and higher traffic ticket costs in areas known to have higher-than-average wildlife-vehicle collisions. The Colorado State Patrol and Colorado Parks and Wildlife collaborated to identify the zones. There were two kinds - one where the speed limit was lowered from 60 or 65 mph to 55 mph, and one where the speed limit was already 55 mph, but traffic infractions now carried doubled fines.
The wildlife zones bill required law enforcement to issue citations for any infractions, not just speeding, said Nancy Shanks, CDOT's Region 5 communications manager.
"Doubled fines were enforced for any driving infraction with the zones," she said, "including careless driving. The program was meant to focus drivers' attention on wildlife near the roadway. Unfortunately, not all drivers were complying. Sometimes it takes hitting something, a close call or a tragic accident to get people to slow down."
The wildlife-zone study, which began in 2010, showed conflicting results, with some wildlife zones showing decreases in crashes while others showed increases. Some of the increases did not occur in the nighttime hours where the zones were in effect, further complicating the results. Statistics were evaluated for the fall and spring seasons beginning fall 2010.
Two of the wildlife zones were close to home. One was in La Plata County, on U.S. Highway 550 just north of Durango between mileposts 26 and 35. Another was located just east of the La Plata/Archuleta county line, 10 miles east of Bayfield, on U.S. Highway 160, between mileposts 113 and 121. Both showed the same inconsistent results as those noted across the states by CDOT.
The overall wildlife zone results included:
Of the 14 study segments, eight showed reductions in wildlife collisions, while six showed increased crashes.
Overall, there was a 9 percent decrease in the number of wildlife-vehicle crashes, day and night.
Zones that had a nighttime speed reduction with fines doubled showed a reduction of only 3 percent in vehicle vs. animal accidents.
Zones that already had a lower speed but had doubled fines showed a 20 percent reduction in crashes.
The U.S. Highway 550 wildlife zone showed a significant improvement, with the average number of spring accidents reduced by 60 percent and average fall accidents reduced by 49 percent.
The U.S. Highway 160 wildlife zone was one of the six in the state that showed an increase in vehicle vs. wildlife crashes, with a 19 percent increase in the spring and a 344 percent increase in fall accidents.
The best performing wildlife zone segment was from mileposts 58 to 68 on Colorado Highway 13, which had an average decrease in collisions of 71 percent. The zone was south of Meeker in Grand County.
The worst performing wildlife zone was from mileposts 108 to 126 on Colorado Highway 9, which had an increase of 59 percent in collisions. That zone runs from south of Kremmling to Vail.
Law-enforcement citations increased 43 percent after the wildlife zones were implemented.
In the U.S. Highway 550 zone, the average number of citations issued in the zone area during the spring decreased by 53 percent, but increased by 73 percent in the fall.
Citations in the U.S. Highway 160 wildlife zone dropped 35 percent in the spring and increased 17 percent in the fall.
CDOT found that over a two-year period, drivers tended to exceed the nighttime speed limit reduction by an average of 7 mph.
Wildlife crashes cause significant damage and injury every year in La Plata County. Since 2004, there have been 2,663 reported crashes, 229 of which involved injuries and two involving fatalities. The average number of crashes per year falls in the mid-200s.
"Those are just the reported crashes," Shanks said. "If you drive a large truck and hit a fawn, you may not report it because your vehicle's OK."
The study results were further complicated when CDOT's wildlife biologist said a wildlife population decline might have affected the number of collisions in some zones.
"The study was a good idea," Shanks said. "We all know if we slow down, we can have a better shot at not hitting an animal, but signs were not reliable for slowing people down."